I first came across the idea of Kotor when researching places to visit in Montenegro. No top ten list or Instagram highlights reel was complete without the addition of Kotor. It looked beautiful, with its old walled city and the dazzling Adriatic stretched out before it. ‘You should visit Kotor!’ site after site cried.
Even better, I heard it described as a ‘hidden gem’, ‘what Dubrovnik used to be before the crowds arrived’ (to be fair, I have not been to Dubrovnik to comment on this). All in all, I was sold. Kotor made the list, and I pencilled in at least four days to explore the city.
Luckily, as is my usual approach, I only booked two nights’ accommodation. As early as we could after our second night, we bailed.
I can’t tell you whether you should visit Kotor – it all depends on what you want from the experience, and also a fair bit of luck. I can, however, share my experience from September 2019, in the hopes it gives you a more up-to-date picture of the situation in Kotor.
Would I visit Kotor again? No, or at least, not unless it was the depths of winter. That said, I would stay nearby, perhaps in Perast. Here’s why.
But first – a disclaimer.
I try hard to avoid writing negative pieces about destinations, for a multitude of reasons. However, I do think as an actually-trying-to-be-helpful writer, rather than just a trying-to-get-you-to-spend-as-much-as-possible writer, I need to be honest.
My biggest reason for avoiding trashing destinations on my blog is that I recognise that I’m writing about somebody’s home. 99.9% of the time, the reason I don’t like a place is not because of the place itself or the people that live there; it’s almost invariably the tourists. Kotor really falls into this category. It seems unfair to penalise a place based on the behaviour of temporary visitors. But, alas, when there’s as many of them as there was in Kotor, it seems a necessary evil.
Secondly, just because I disliked somewhere doesn’t mean that the place is bad or that no-one else would like it. I hate hiking. Trekking to Everest base camp is something I am pretty sure I would hate – does that mean it’s a bad place and everyone should avoid it? Absolutely not, obviously! It means that I’m a lazy potato, and non-lazy potatoes would probably love it.
If you’re new here or found my blog on Google, it’s worth noting that on my blog, I focus on budget travel with an emphasis on off-the-beaten-path, unusual and cultural experiences. So, that’s obviously the lens I’m going to look at Kotor through.
Finally, I do think that a lot of whether you like a place or not comes down to the unique set of factors that transpired while you were there. I’m sure if it rained non-stop during your beach break to Vanuatu, you’d probably like it less than I did. Factors like the weather, who happens to be there and whether you meet nice/cool people can all influence your opinion.
So, there’s my disclaimer. Hands up if you’ve figured out my previous career was in the legal industry!
Anyway, my point is that I don’t want what I’m going to say to be misconstrued. I just hope that this information is helpful for anyone who’s deciding whether Kotor is right for them.
Kotor – the good
No place is all bad, in my opinion. Kotor certainly isn’t. So, in fairness to a place that I’m going to get rather down on shortly, here is what is great about Kotor.
The local people
As you’ll hear soon, Kotor – at least during my visit – is utterly overrun by tourists. Cruise ship tourists, aka the ones that arrive thousands strong and descend on a city with their lanyards and booming voices, intent on making the most of their fleeting visit.
I could understand if locals in Kotor had had it up to their neck with these tourists as well as all the others. I mean, have you seen the chagrin written all over the faces of Parisians? Not in Kotor. If they’re whinging about us tourists, they’re doing it behind closed doors. Everyone we met was infallibly kind and hospitable.
You may have heard that Kotor kind of has a thing about cats. I also have a thing about cats. Even the crowds of onlookers were not going to deter me from going ga-ga over every single one of these little cuddle muffins.
Underneath it all – and by all, I mean the thousands of visitors – Kotor is a seriously cool and historic place. There is a good reason why it got so popular – it is really beautiful. It’s a maze of tiny little alleyways, and if you look up you can be dazzled by the history just dotted all over the town.
If you can avoid the crowds, then Kotor is absolutely stunning. I can really imagine that when it was a true “hidden gem”, it was a magical spot. The magic is still there, you just have to work a lot harder for it.
Kotor – the bad
Right, onto the bad stuff. You knew it was coming. I knew it was coming. I can no longer dance around the issue. Here it is.
Kotor is a small place. There are around 10,000 people who live in the town (mostly in the surrounding area), and the actual walled city is very small and compact. I mean, that was kind of the point – it was supposed to be a small, secure area to keep citizens away from invading armies.
Not to welcome thousands and thousands of cruise ship passengers daily.
Alas, that’s what we have with Kotor. We stayed for two nights, which meant we saw the cruise ship situation for three days. The first day there was one cruise ship, the second there were two, and on the third there were two big ones and a small one.
I understand that cruise ships have an average of 3,000 passengers on board. This means that a conservative guess is that 5,000 people were descending on the town, often, and that’s before you even factor in day trippers and longer stayers like us.
That’s 50% of Kotor’s population, and almost 1% of Montenegro’s population as a whole. Every day. And like I said, that’s a conservative estimate.
It’s also not just the cruise ship passengers. There’s also what I have coined the “Dubrovnik effect”. Basically it seems like any well-known tourist attraction within day trip distance of Dubrovnik is also crowded with people doing whistle-stops to other cities and countries from their ultra-crowded Croatian base.
The town just isn’t built for that many people and it feels very claustrophobic. Walking up the main gate to the town is somewhat like walking into Disneyland; you’re surrounded by people dressed in their holiday best shouting ‘Darren! Darren! Where are you Darren?! Darren, yell out if they’ve got you!’ into the sea of middle-aged people.
Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration for dramatic effect, but it’s really crowded. The gate in is huge (about ten feet across) and we actually had to wait in a line to get in.
I’d recently been to Split when I visited Kotor, and found Kotor to be more claustrophobic – mostly because the town is a lot smaller, but the numbers of daily visitors are huge.
In order to cope with the huge amounts of people who suddenly swarm in, the restaurants, cafes and shops need to be efficient. I take my hat off to the way they are able to seat you, feed you and wave you off in the time it takes me to decide what I’m eating from the menu – but it leaves the time for chit-chat (and boy do I love chit-chat) basically non-existent.
I’d like to stress that I don’t hold a grudge against any local people for making a livelihood from tourism. However, as someone who prefers a style of travel that is slower, it’s just not my cup of tea.
More so than any trip I’ve ever taken, on this particular one I’ve seen the ill effects of tourism. I understand this issue is complicated and that tourism is a double-edged sword; it presents huge economic opportunity for towns and regions. However, I truly believe that cities and towns should exist, first and foremost, for locals.
Given the hugely inflated prices (again, I don’t blame the restaurants here – they’re responding to demand and I’m sure the rent is not cheap) and general mania of the crowds, I doubt many locals are hanging out in the Kotor Old Town.
As a result, the tourist centre seems to lack the pulse and soul of a city that’s truly lived in. Instead, it’s a hodge-podge of gorgeous streets selling a fairly lacklustre selection of the same souvenirs.
Just really not my vibe, at all.
So, should you visit Kotor?
Did I make it clear I didn’t really enjoy Kotor? Yep, the truth is I ran for the bus station and headed onwards to Ulcinj as fast as I could. Before then, however, I decided I was going to enjoy the city if it killed me – and I did (enjoy it, that is). Sort of.
If you are interested in the history and beauty of the city, then I think you should visit Kotor – however you should be strategic about how you do it. That is, if you’re not a fan of crowds either. If you like crowds, hurrah! Welcome to paradise!
Here are my top tips for how to enjoy Kotor without the crowds:
- Take a look at when the cruise ships are docking, and plan your holiday around avoiding them. You can use a website like Cruise Mapper which will show you when the big floating cities are scheduled to arrive and avoid them like you avoid bending over in cheap supermarket jeggings.
- Be prepared to get up early and stay up late to see the city before/after the crowds arrive and depart. If you wake up at 8am, you’ll have a couple of hours of sightseeing, and then basically the whole evening once the cruise ships sail off around 5pm.
- Base yourself in another, quieter area and just head in to Kotor for day trips. I visited nearby Perast which was beautiful and scenic, or you could even go as far as Petrovac in the pursuit of serenity.
- Consider travelling in off-season, as in, the dead of winter. I understand that some amenities do close during low season, however the most beautiful parts of Kotor have been around for centuries and aren’t going anywhere. So rug up, and get ready to have the beauty (and kitties) all to yourself.
- Try to get lost in the alleyways. Most of the tourist crowds are centered around the main square and they thin rapidly as you walk further into the heart of Kotor. If you walk back far enough, you’ll get away from them totally and even get a glimpse into regular life in Kotor.
- If you are in Kotor and want a more local experience, get out of Old Town. It’s not as pretty, but you’ll find cheaper and more authentic restaurants. And still plenty of cats.